Station wagons offered Dad that little extra “just in case” room

Though waning in popularity now, the wagon was perfect for those unexpected roadside treasures

Originally published February 20, 2017

Just in case.

That is the real reason people buy the vehicles they do. I was having another discussion with an industry consultant, and we were questioning why SUV and pickup sales remain so stubbornly high, even as manufacturers continue to pledge to reinvent themselves as a landscape of subcompact electrics.

There’s the usual emotion-got-the-better-of-me thing, and there are particularly adept salespeople who can push you off your mark. But the fact remains that many of us are driving around in cars that are too big, too small, too expensive to maintain, or simply not what we thought we were buying.

I think there is something else at play, the Alfred Sommerfeld Just In Case dilemma. My father bought honking big station wagons because you never know when you’re going to need a honking big station wagon, and you’d hate to be caught with your pants down if the need for one arose.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I got stuck behind a line of cars who had slowed on a local street for no discernible reason. I finally crept past the hold up: somebody had put a bunch of household goods at the curb, and this required those driving past to decide if these goods should be added to their households. Maybe not every person going by thought that, but my father surely would have. He called bulk collection, good garbage days.

We didn’t have station wagons because we all played hockey or had dogs with kennels. We had station wagons so my father could shop by the side of the road.

Just in case.

Born in 1926, Dad threw away nothing and took full advantage when others did. He would haul me to flea markets and auctions out in the country, sometimes with a specific purchase in mind but more often than not, it was purely a scouting expedition. He was a coin collector, and we’d sometimes come home with a purchase he would assure me was very special, and we’d just stolen it because some people had no clue what they were selling while others were lying crooks. I listened to him though I mostly went along to get a hotdog and a Coke from the cart outside and wonder if the people who’d owned all this stuff were dead, and then I’d make up stories in my head about their lives.

The purpose of our station wagons was the promise they represented. If we could find it, we could bring it home. It didn’t matter if Dad’s new purchase was as small as a coin and fit in his pocket, or had to be strung onto the roof racks, we could do it. There was a box in the back of the car full of stretched out bungee cords and coils of rope.

There was a quilted packing blanket that could protect the delicate edges of a dresser or wrap up a kid too cold to care about the provenance of the warmth. I remember countless times Dad shaking grass clippings and bark and dried mud from that blanket, and then tucking it around whichever kid was complaining.

My Dad could root around in the back of that wagon and find everything from buckets of tools and rags to jumper cables, the same way my Mom could find everything from safety pins to Jolly Ranchers in her purse.

Just in case.

Growing up in a household that prided itself on its ability to haul home Christmas trees or a cord of wood, I ended up doing what many of us do when we purchase cars: I anticipated trips like that, though they may only happen once a year. I’ve had to educate myself on the fact the few deliveries I receive don’t justify owning a truck, and people selling cords of wood usually know they’ll have to bring it to you. Roaming the street with furniture tied to the roof racks like some metallic Sherpa is not what owning a car is all about, though I understand my father’s deep seated need to be able to do it. What’s the point of stumbling upon perfect treasure if you can’t get it home?

My Dad bought a small car just once, when he needed an A to B ride for work. A colleague found him a Morris dirt cheap, and after driving it for a few weeks someone rear ended him and he left it where it sat and walked home. He bought a Dodge Ramcharger. I swear it was because he couldn’t stand to drive by an abandoned but perfectly good bookcase, or to turn down a free load of cinder blocks.

Hatchbacks make up a larger percentage of cars sales in Canada than they do in the U.S. Seems we like practical, and it seems we like to have that little bit extra room.

Just in case.

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2 responses to Station wagons offered Dad that little extra “just in case” room

  1. Pat says:

    I would have loved your Dad. Station wagons were the best, and old ones are becoming very collectible now, commanding big bucks.

  2. Padraig says:

    I always thought I would like to have a Nash Rambler wagon, because the front seats would fold all the way down and you could sleep in them (BTW – when will your article on sleeping in your car appear here?) I finally got one, from some dealer in Scarborough; it was painted pink, but we repainted it blue. It was just right for driving up to the cottage we always rented on Manitoulin; it must have like the island, because one year it finally died there, and we had to buy a garish red and black Dodge, with a hole in the floor and about a block long, just to drive back home.
    McDonald’s always used to look for “the station wagons and steeples’ as a sign to open one of their family-friendly stores.

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